Credit: Photo By Steve Bohnel

Five candidates for county executive and six candidates for at-large County Council seats shared their visions for how they would serve the local Black community at a forum at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring on Thursday evening.

The forum, hosted by the Montgomery County’s Black Collective organization, was mostly a tame affair when compared to other candidate forums this campaign season. 

The Black Collective is a group of Black-led nonprofits, businesses, faith groups, educational groups and other organizations that advocate for the need for county government to eliminate health, educational and economic gaps within the economy.

After opening statements, the candidates — who were given the questions in advance, were asked:

  • How they have addressed economic, health and educational disparities within the Black community 
  • What actions they would take if elected to ensure Black voices are heard when decisions are made that impact the county’s Black community

County Executive Marc Elrich, County Council Member Hans Riemer and tech CEO Peter James were the three Democrats present. David Blair, a businessman who narrowly lost to Elrich in the 2018 primary, could not attend due to a previous engagement. Candidates Reardon Sullivan, chair of the Republican central committee, and Shelly Skolnick, a perennial Republican candidate and attorney, also attended.

Elrich, seeking a second term, said in response to the disparities question that he has expanded early childhood education programs during his first term. As a former elementary school teacher, he said providing this resource is incredibly vital for future opportunities.

“If kids do not start school on a level playing field, they will continue to struggle to progress through the school system,” Elrich said.

Sullivan and Skolnick agreed that public education was key to addressing disparities within the Black community. 

But Skolnick suggested that universal pre-K could be costly to implement throughout the state.

Therefore, he suggested scheduling pre-K and post-K programs in July and August — to be offered both before kindergarteners enter school and after their first year. That way, the county can use current teachers and existing classroom space in order to cut down on costs, instead of having to find more of both, he said. 

Sullivan said his engineering firm based in the county has worked to address health disparities by designing improved work processes in hospitals so that all demographics of patients can be better served.

Riemer said that he has engaged the Black business community during his time as a council member, including creating an incubator program for businesses. There is so much potential if officials tap into the entrepreneurial spirit within that community, he said.

“This county has so much riding [on that],” Riemer said. “If we could get the share of Black business up to the share of the population, we would create tens of thousands of jobs here in Montgomery County.”

James explained his past experience volunteering with the Conservation Corps in the county, a program which diverts young people entering the justice system into community service such as mowing public property. James said he taught those young adults about computer programming, renewable energy and various technologies. 

County Council 

Five of the eight Democrats running for County Council at-large seats fielded the same questions: County Council President Gabe Albornoz and council member Tom Hucker, former school board candidate and biology teacher Dana Gassaway, Gaithersburg City Council Member Laurie-Anne Sayles, and Scott Goldberg, a Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee member. Council Vice President Evan Glass, council member Will Jawando and Brandy Brooks — who ran in 2018 for an at-large seat — were unable to attend. 

One of the three Republican candidates, Dwight Patel, participated. Chris Fiotes, an at-large candidate in 2018, and Len Lieber, a first-time candidate, could not attend. 

Gassaway said in response to the question about disparities that he is a descendant of slaves from the county and he knows the challenges of learning and competing as a Black man because he’s lived that experience. 

“I understand the stress, the pain, the pressure, the toughness that it is to be a Black man in this county,” Gassaway said. “And I guarantee you that as a Black man in this county, I’m going to make it easier for our young Black men.”

Goldberg said one of the biggest disparities that has troubled him in recent months is the share of Black homeowners in the county, when compared with other racial groups.. A recent magazine article he read said that the Black homeownership rate is lower in the county than it is nationwide. 

He said he was surprised to learn that the disparity existed in such a diverse, affluent county. In order to combat that issue and others, he urged county voters to pick him because of his experience running a small real estate management business that he founded 15 years ago. That experience has shown him the challenges of working within the county, and that he would offer a unique perspective versus the other 10 members, Goldberg said. 

Sayles, in her closing statement, also pointed to housing issues. In order to address an ongoing housing deficit, she argued the county needs to update its moderately priced dwelling unit law to make the minimum higher than 12.5%. The law requires developers to designate at least 12.5% of housing units as moderately priced for new construction.

She also pointed to a statistic concerning how the county spent funding during the pandemic. The county spent $1 billion on procurement expenses, but only $1 million of that went to Black, minority and women-owned businesses, Sayles said. 

“We need to do a much better job of making sure there’s parity when we’re spending taxpayer dollars,” she said.

Government accessibility issues were also discussed by candidates. Patel said council members should get out of “their ivory tower” at the County Council building in Rockville and hold their meetings in public high schools across the county. That would provide an opportunity for residents to meet council members in their communities instead of driving to Rockville, he said. 

Hucker mentioned his ability to build coalitions as a community organizer countywide, both before and during his time as a state and county lawmaker. He also touted his past legislative record, including the council’s successful efforts to raise the minimum wage. Community members are vital to that process, he said.

“I’ve passed dozens of bills at the county and state level,” Hucker said. “And I’ll tell you, the very best ones were never my idea. Most of them were the ideas of grassroots leaders of PTAs, of churches, of schools that I’ve worked with for 16 years.”

Albornoz mentioned his similar experience working with the Black community, specifically the African-American Health Program in the county. Supporting that initiative, which aims to decrease health disparities and offer free, critical health services to African-American residents, and establishing the Black Physicians Network — a group of local doctors and physicians that help to accomplish that goal — has been vital during the pandemic, and the council must continue its support, he said.

“I think [that network] is going to do incredible work in ensuring that we address, once and for all, these immoral public health inequities that existed prior to the pandemic, but were exacerbated during it,” Albornoz said.

[For more information on candidates for local, state and federal races, check out the Bethesda Beat voters guide.]

The primary election is July 19. Early voting begins July 7. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that time.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com